Hong Kong independence banners present a real test of Carrie Lam’s political wisdom
The government doesn’t want to see the start of a new academic year turn into a return to political strife in the city
Will the government’s strong condemnation lead to stronger advocacy for Hong Kong independence? The question has haunted the administration, and, to a certain extent, Beijing as well over the years.
The idea of Hong Kong independence was first raised by a localist academic back in 2011. It was then brought into the spotlight in 2014, when University of Hong Kong student magazine Undergrad published a piece titled “Hong Kong Nationalism”, which was immediately attacked by the city’s then-leader, Leung Chun-ying, who made a high-profile warning against the spread of the idea in his 2015 policy address.
Since then, Beijing has stated its uncompromising anti-independence stand on various occasions.
Yet, finding a more workable way to curb independence is the subject of a debate that continues until now. The dilemma is, while most Hongkongers neither see nor support independence as a viable option – and this is the “red line” set by President Xi Jinping that Hong Kong can never cross – how the government can effectively prevent the proliferation of the idea is easier said than done.
So, on Friday, when Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor issued a strongly worded statement warning that “academic freedom and autonomy of the universities do not justify the advocacy of fallacies”, it provided some clues to her governing style.
Lam first slammed the poster put up on the Education University “democracy wall” in a vile attack on Undersecretary for Education Christine Choi Yuk-lin. The poster “congratulated” Choi for losing her eldest son, who suffered from depression and committed suicide on Thursday.
Some online comments suggested the family tragedy was “karma” for Choi, whose pro-Beijing background is treated with suspicion by her critics.
While decrying the poster as “extremely callous and insulting”, Lam condemned the proliferation of pro-independence banners on university campuses, warning they had “overstepped the bottom line” and there were limits to freedom of speech. Hong Kong independence “is in violation of our country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and development interests”, she reminded those responsible.
Lam was apparently trying to kill two birds with one stone. She did not comment immediately when the first pro-independence banner appeared on the Chinese University campus last week, but when more banners and posters surfaced at other campuses, the attack against Choi proved to be the last straw for the chief executive.
Her response was timely, following her previously measured approach in the dilemma of how to curb the trend without blowing it out of proportion.
Obviously the government doesn’t want to see the “back to campus” season at the start of the new academic year turning into a “back to political strife” scenario.
That is not just because it has too much on its plate, but also because Lam is busy preparing her maiden policy address to be delivered next month. But she could not keep silent on the matter either.
Also worth noting is the fact that, so far, neither Beijing nor its representatives at the liaison office have made a strong official response yet.
Instead, it was mainland students here who took the initiative to confront the independence activists, the most dramatic scene being a student from across the border tearing down a poster at Chinese University and arguing with student union members that “[this is the democracy wall], you can put it up, and I can pull it down”.
Overnight, the young woman became a national hero, with messages pouring in to support and praise her bravery, reflected on major online platforms and in newspapers on the mainland.
Beijing can take public opinion from mainlanders as its weapon to say a firm “no” to Hong Kong independence. But it’s more complicated for Lam as she must be accountable to Beijing and its zero- tolerance policy regarding independence, while also making sure that getting tough on advocacy doesn’t backfire.
It will be a real test of her political wisdom.